Monday 30 July 2012

Classic and New Olympics

There should be two Summer Olympics.

I've come to this conclusion after at least twenty minutes of deliberation, whilst cooking tea (herb-crusted haddock). There are events that belong in the classic Olympics, and events that clearly don't. I'm not one to go round upsetting people, so the events that don't belong will get their own version of the games - the Neo-Olympics. Unless of course they don't belong in either.

Classic events need to meet the following rules.
  • Individual sports. No teams or relays. Relays are just another way of getting more medals for the same type of events.
  • No expensive equipment needed.
  • Have a vague link to the Ancients.
  • Can be done successfully outdoors.
  • Could have been done by me, as a child.

What's in the Classic Olympics, in alphabetical order, with caveats.
  • Archery. Traditional bows only. Archers have to make their own bows too. No "team" event. Automatic gold medal for the first archer to shoot one of their arrows with another arrow, Robin Hood style.
  • Athletics, excluding relays and the triple jump. If you like jumping far, do the long jump.
  • Boxing. Hitting each other is pretty traditional. None of the judging malarky either, last man standing wins. Tae Kwon Do-ists can do this one too. No kicking though.
  • Canoe racing, home made dugout canoes only. All other canoe sports go into the Neo-Olympics.
  • Diving, but more like the Red-Bull cliff diving contest. Off of cliffs.
  • Fencing, or duelling as it will be called. First to draw blood wins.
  • Gymnastics (artistic). Renamed Gymnastics (the real one, not the poncey one with ribbons)
  • Swimming, obviously. No relays, but medleys will be included. They have to do one length with a float between their legs too.
  • Weightlifting. Nothing is more Olympian than lifting heavy stuff.
  • Wrestling. Two types, dry and oiled. People who'd be doing Judo can do this instead.

What's on the edge:
  • Trampoline. Might fail the expense test. It is cool to watch though, which probably saves it.

What's in the Neo-Olympics:
  • Badminton. Needs skill, energy, reflexes. Also needs to be indoor, which disqualifies it. When I was a kid playing badminton outdoors was close to pointless.
  • Basketball. Team sport. U.S.A banned forever though, as they're too good.
  • Beach Volleyball. I'd love to include it but it's just about a team sport. Oh go on then... it's back in.
  • Slalom canoe. Not everyone has access to the rivers, the funny poles and the funny canoes.
  • Cycling, all types. I hate to admit it, but not everyone has access to the bikes, the velodromes and baggy shorts for BMX.
  • Equestrian. You need a horse. I never had a horse. Many, many people don't have horses either. The horse gets a medal too.
  • Handball. Gets in over football because I reckon going to the 'lympics is a big deal for handballists.
  • Hockey. See handball.
  • Judo, Taekwondo. Both to be done on an angled wooden platform, like in Bloodsport. Bolo Yeung will almost win both events, yet somehow Van Damme will struggle back from the breaking of three limbs to defeat him with a flying-spinning kick. Yes, even in Judo. The judges let it go.
  • Modern pentathlon. Close to being kicked out completely for being made up, but at least it requires expertise in very different disciplines. It's like they drew the events out of a hat. I might add in "even more modern pentathlon", which consists of Call of Duty, cake decorating, bog-snorkelling, laser tag and streetdance.
  • Rowing, sailing. They can stay, but let's cut down the number of different classes. In rowing, singles and eights. In sailing, a little boat and a big boat.
  • Shooting. Like archery for people who can't make a bow.
  • Synchronised swimming. With sharks in the pool. Not hungry ones, that would be cruel.
  • Table tennis. Gets in over tennis, again because it must be the pinnacle of the sport.
  • Volleyball and Water Polo. I might combine them though, volleyball in a foot of water. 

Out completely, no medals for you:
  • Football. No-one cares except the winners. Women's football might survive, but with men in goal.
  • Tennis. Really, with multi-millionaires playing and four Grand Slams a year, kick it out.
  • Rhythmic gymnastics. You might as well have ballroom dancing.
  • Triathlon. Swimming, cycling, running. Pick one. Get good at it.

Monday 16 July 2012

Italy Part 8: It's all downhill from here

Of course, "here" just happened to be the top of the third pass of the day. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Rewind.

The previous entry on this blog ended with some people going for coffee, ice cream and beer in the sunshine whilst others went to do another mountain.

In some ways, there was a risk that the beer drinkers would regret their decision. Generally, when I've seen splits like this happen both sides insist that they'd made the right choice and had a truely excellent time. As we stumbled back to the hotel after our relaxing afternoon (damn, I may have given away which group I was in) we came across Tony outside the hotel.

"How was it?" we asked.

No words were needed. Sunken eyes, a 1000-yard stare, a mumble. A shake of the head. The odd distinguishable word: brutal, horrible, killer, ridiculous. Ah. This was from one of our top two climbers. There was little point asking the other one though, as he'd been drinking beer in town. Catching up with the others led to more shaking heads, tales of weaving across the road, rolling trackstands. They'd all made it though - chapeau.

That night there was a small matter of a football match (Italy - Germany, Euro 2012 semi-final) and Massimo had magically got us a table, in front of a TV, at a local Pizzeria. The atmosphere watching the game was intense and thankfully Italy won. We also had pizza.

It was much bigger than it looks.

Fast forward to the morning. Three passes to go.

  • Passo Falzarego, 15km long, to 2115m
  • Passo Valles, 20km from our low point to the top, at 2032m
  • Passo Rolle, a mere 6km to 1989m
Falzarego was dispatched with ruthless efficiency - excluding Phill who had to nip back to the hotel to pick up his heart-rate monitor strap. Call it ruthless inefficiency. Again, another blisteringly good descent.

Valles. Or, Passo Hateful, to give the English translation. The first section was merely hellishly hot - a fountain in a village square was a lifesaver. Two bottles emptied over the head then one filled for squirting on the climb, one filled for drinking. The middle section 10%+ for a few km was brutal. Everyone suffered, weaved over the road, ground out the revolutions to make achingly slow progress. As the gradient eased near the top we came out of the trees - so we had added sunshine to cope with.
Welcome relief. They sold ice cream. There was even a troll up there.

We had lunch, we dropped down the mountain like stones. The last climb started fairly high up, so it was more a bump in the road than anything noteworthy. And then... was all downhill from there.

In San Martino di Castrozza, our finishing town, they also sold ice cream. 

What else could we do?

The final scores: 576 kilometres of distance, 14697m of ascent. Lots of passes, lots of beer, lots of pizza, lots of ice cream. No crashes. Mission accomplished.

The trip was organised by Saddle Skedaddle - a custom version of their Dolomites itinery. I'd describe the trip as flawless and I'd highly recommend them.

Friday 13 July 2012

Italy Part 7: Hot, hot, hot.

The most excellent book "Mountain High" describes our opening pass of the day, Passo Fedaia, with a few choice quotes.

  • "probably the hardest climb in Italy" - Gilberto Simoni, 2 time Giro winner.
  • "definitely one of the hardest climbs [in professional cycling] - it's like someone's horribly steep driveway" - 1988 Giro winner Andy Hampsten.
  • "The Fedaia is compelling in the same way as a horror movie from which it's somehow hard to avert the eyes" - the author.

It has 3km where the gradient never dips below 12%, and it's 18% at worst.

Nasty, nasty climb.

Of course, if you go up the other direction, like we did - it's a frickin' awesome descent. I bottled out slightly at 85.73 kph, but I'm sure David saw at least 90kph. At the top of the pass, also known as the Marmolada (after the glacier by the pass) there is a stunning Dolomitine (is that a word?) lake. Here's me, looking a bit... European.

I apologise for the leg angle.

We ended the descent at Caprile where there was obviously another coffee stop. We were getting good at this - first ones down found the cafe, grabbed the best tables and lined up the waiter for a round of triple ristrettos. It was around 11:30 by now, and things were hotting up. Perfect - just in time for Passo Giau.

10km, and average of 9.1%, up to 2236m. That's half the story. Add in 30C+ temperatures, blazing sun, a lack of water, a surfeit of idiocy and five days of riding already in the legs and you have all the ingredients... for pain.

I started with just one full bottle, which I admit was slightly dumb. I wasn't riding hard - I couldn't - just grinding it out. I was even (whisper it) overtaken by three or four others. The official start of the climb is at Selva di Cadore, where I saw Christina. I mentioned that I was low on water, and she told me that the van was near. Cool, I thought, I'll get a top up when it comes past me.

A few km further on I was in water conservation mode, with no sign of the van.

A few more, and the van came straight past me. Oh, I guess he'll pull in ahead.

A few more, no van, almost out of water. Some nasty looking pipes at the side of the climb had trickles of liquid coming from them but I really wasn't sure if it was drinkable. I was cursing the van driver.

One more kilometre... and relief. A water fountain. Clear, cold, glorious life-giving mountain water. I glugged, slurped, doused and steamed. I filled one bottle - there were only a couple of km to go now - and carried on refreshed. Of course, it wasn't magic. My legs were still heavier than Slipknot.

Reader, I suffered.

Those last two kilometres were a struggle. If it hadn't been for the people ahead of me walking, I may have ground to a halt and crawled into a ditch. But walkers (with bikes) are an amazing incentive - I will not stop... I will not stop.

At the top I met the van. I met the others. I had another overpriced Coke in the cafe and soaked up the sunshine. Christina made it to the top and wandered over.

"Did you not want water from the van?"


"It was parked round the corner from where you spoke to me. You rode straight past it".

Doh. In all my confusion I'd completely failed to spot the slightly obvious team vehicle, trailer attached, on the right hand side of the road. Idiot. Still, nice weather vane on the top of the pass.

From Giau it was pretty much straight down to Cortina d'Ampezzo. 25 minutes to lose 1000m of elevation. I was starting to enjoy these descents more and more, and even getting less likely to crash.

At Cortina we regrouped at our hotel - the plan was to have lunch there, and continue to the Tre Cime di Lavaredo. We lounged:

We lazed:

We thought about the heat, the climb and the fact we were on holiday:

And you know what? The brave carried on to do the Tre Cime. The beautiful went for iced coffee in Cortina.


(We went here)

Monday 9 July 2012

Italy Part 6: Gods, Liquigas and the Sella Ronda

On the rest day, I took a wander into town in the afternoon. As I was coming back to the hotel I noticed a woman unloading some road bikes from a van. I thought little of it. I barely even looked at what the bikes were. If I had, I might have spotted that they were slightly special.

Pinarello Dogma. Campag Super Record EPS groupset. Fulcrum Racing Zero wheels. Huge saddlebag. That's not a cheap bike. Still, anyone with a saddlebag that big must be a bit "all the gear, no idea". Look at those stem spacers!

There was a matching white and lilac one, and a white one too.

Clearly a family who enjoy cycling. Probably here to bimble up the passes in the sunshine. Based on the rest of the hotel guests, probably German.

At breakfast the next day I noticed this tall kid, about 14 or 15. Skinny. Looked a little lost at the buffet. Again, thought nothing of it. Scoffed some food, went to the room to get kitted up. Wandered down to the lobby with my bags. We had a transfer that day but we'd be riding straight from the van at our destination in the heart of the Dolomites.

Most of the crew were there, beaming. Either they'd had an especially good breakfast or something else was up. Massimo broke the news.

"Miguel Indurain is staying in the hotel. I'm going to find him and ask for a picture!".

I grinned too. Although I'd not got into following professional cycling until about 2006, I'd done my best to catch up on the history. Big Mig, five times Tour de France winner (consecutive years), time trial master and holder of one of the lowest resting heart rates this side of a pachyderm. Someone, with better knowledge than I, had spotted him at breakfast with his wife and son. We dashed to the bike room to take some pictures...

This tour company was good. Ace routes, brilliant hotels, fabulous lunches and now a superstar on the side. We hung around the lobby, taking our time to load the luggage into the vans. His wife appeared in cycling kit. Massimo has a word... it was on - he was happy to meet up and pose for a picture. We started bouncing with excitement.

Miguel appeared, also in cycling kit. He shook our hands. He chatted (in Italian). He posed with the Bath CC riders, holding a Bath CC jersey. They were very happy with this. Then a picture with all of us.

He's the tall one in the middle, in the black and white. I took a sneaky pic myself.

If you look carefully, and maybe zoom in on his legs, you'll notice something. The next time your shaven legged roadie friends tease you about your hairy legs you can tell them - Big Mig doesn't shave. Big Mig's a real rider.

After all that, what else could the day bring? Well, a two hour drive to start with, made shorter by frantic texting, Facebooking and tweeting. We were off to do the Sella Ronda - three or four passes, known as a ski loop but also famous from the Giro. It's a true circuit and we'd be riding down the first part of the first climb once we'd completed the loop. We started with a 20km downhill/flat to warm up, where we were passed by a couple of Liquigas riders or very good wannabes - full 2012 team kit, bikes, legs and descending skills.

We paused for a snack at our hotel - we were riding past it before the main loop - before setting off to the first pass, Passo Sella - summit at 2214 metres or so.

Once again, a beautiful climb. Tight hairpins through woods led upwards until the trees cleared, leaving magnificent views. Not that I was really paying attention - I thought I'd put some effort in on this one, even managing to stay with Tony for 200 metres when he passed me. A glance at the Garmin showed an unsustainable (for me) 280w so I let him go and eased back a little. Not too much, as I was still passing people all the way up. I'd pay for that later. The view from the top was...

...and the descent, chasing buses and cars, was just as good.

Next, Passo di Gardena, about 2110m. I didn't enjoy that one, due to a combination of being worn out from the morning effort, a full stomach and a lack of carbs. A Torq caffeine gel got me to the top. I was riding with David - he too had smoked himself up the first climb and was set on an easy day. I was happy to help hold him back.

Passo Campologno was a mere 1877m, which then descended to the foot of the final climb of the day. By that time I was just grinding out the pedal strokes, chugging along. No zip, no pizzazz. Tired. Very tired.

Passo Pordoi tops out at 2239m, and I felt every one. There's a memorial to Coppi at the top, not that I noticed. He crested the climb first in three straight Giri, 1947, 48 and 49, again in 52 and once more in 54. He obviously liked it. It's the highest pass in the Dolomites (Stelvio is the Alps) and so it's often the highest point of the Giro. The Cima Coppi prize is now awarded to the first rider over the highest point.

Coppi may have liked the climb, but I loved the descent. Adored it. All those hairpins through the woods that we'd ground up earlier, we now flew down. I was even getting faster - I could just about keep David and Tony in sight. My right hand turns were now almost as good as my left hand turns (almost certainly better because of riding track). At the bottom I may have whooped. I apologise.

That night I had double pasta, and ice cream. I deserved it.

Route here. 88km, 2149m of ascent.

Saturday 7 July 2012

Italy Part 5: Stelvio, take 2

Rest day. Well, kinda. There was no big ride planned for the day as we were staying in the same place - Prato allo Stelvio. As well as being pretty close to Switzerland we were also pretty close to Austria and there was a distinct German feel to the town. The road signs for example, and the other guests in the hotel - all German. We also had the novelty of a bike shop to visit, a hotel with a pool, sauna (naked) and steam room.

Various plans were put together the previous evening, over dinner. The enthusiastic Bath CC were planning to ride up Stelvio, continue down the other side to Bormio, then hang a left to ride up Passo di Gavia. They were then going to come back down to Bormio and probably hitch a lift in the van.

The slightly less enthusiastic people were planning to ride up Stelvio, then either come straight back down or loop the slightly longer way back via Switzerland. I was in this group - at best.

The sensible, recovery minded Phill (who was suffering from a knee twinge) planned to do very little - maybe a flatish ride along the river to Austria.

My personal motivation depended on the weather. I failed to mention that the descent of Stelvio to Prato allo Stelvio the previous day was slightly terrifying. 48 hairpins, fast, steep and soaking wet. Did I say cold? It was so cold my face froze. I really didn't want to be riding in the cold and wet again.

Morning came. Sun, clearish skies with the odd little fluffy cloud bumbling along. Bah. I guess I'd better go out and ride.

Three of the Bath crew (John, Pete and Rob) had set off super-early for their "recovery" ride up Stelvio and Gavia. That left myself, Tony, David, Graham and Christina the guide. Graham, Christina and I set off, expecting to soon be caught by David and Tony.

The "classic" side of the Stelvio has 48 hairpins, handily marked out for you so you can either be motivated or demotivated depending on how you react to "31 hairpins to go" when you are already knackered. I just closed my eyes and concentrated on the next rider to overtake - yes, amazingly, I was overtaking people all the way up. I can't believe there were people who could ride more slowly that I was, but to be fair plenty of them had rucksacks and mountain bikes.

As I climbed higher, the sunshine gave way to cloud. Low cloud. Cloud so low that we were in it. Rain came, visibility dropped to 30 metres and I once again did my trick with the gilet. The lack of visibility didn't bode well for coming back down - this was a really busy road with motorbikes, cars, campervans and trucks  all squeezing past the tortoise-like cyclists. Hmm.

Describing a climb up a mountain that's shrouded in low cloud is difficult. I won't even try.

The summit. Cold again, so straight into the cafe. I actually felt better than the previous day and did my best to warm up with coffee and strudel. Graham was already there, but curiously we'd not been passed by Tony or David. A couple of minutes later Tony appeared, panting like a man who'd just sprinted up a 25km climb. After a few minutes he was able to talk and explained that David had broken a shifter (SRAM - not a good make to break in Italy) and the resulting delay had meant they hadn't started for ages. David was now on Massimo's bike - without David's not-so-secret 11-32 cassette. He wasn't far behind Tony though.

I still wasn't warm, mainly due to being soaking wet. So, I did what any other cycling freak would do in that circumstance and bought my second souvenir jersey of the trip with the excuse of "it'll warm me up". After trying on the pink and black "Cima Coppi/Stelvio" version, and noting the odd cut, I went for the white and black version. Good job, the pink one was the girls cut...

Christina arrived and told us that lunch was ready in the van. We huddled inside and consumed calories, watching the clouds alternately surround us then drift away. There were three options from here.

  • Go with the van to pick the nutters up from Bormio
  • Ride the longer way back via Switzerland
  • Risk the Stelvio descent one more time, in the low cloud
Something came over me, probably a desperation to get back to the hotel. I waited for a break in the clouds, and announced I would head back down the mountain. Tony felt the same and before my bravado could subside I was over the top and accelerating towards hairpin 1. At least I think I was - it was difficult to see.

Call it more confidence, bravery or stupidity, but somehow I was 3 minutes faster down to Prato than the previous day.

Stupidity, I reckon.

Route here. 25km up, 25km down.

Friday 6 July 2012

Italy Part 4b: Slight Return

I mentioned that today would have the theme of "touching greatness".

I was wrong. I've lost a day. Somehow, in all the excitement I forgot the rest day. The rest day consisted of either

  • Climbing Stelvio and Gavia
  • Climbing Stelvio
  • Spinning to Austria and back

To confuse things even further all that will be documented tomorrow. Instead I give you a picture from the first climb of the Stelvio, courtesy of Pete.


Thursday 5 July 2012

Italy Part 4: Stelvio, take 1

After the single climb of the previous day, that eased us into the big mountains, there was something a little more interesting on the plan.

  • Passo Bernina, 2310m
  • Passo something else, 2286m
  • Passo Stelvio, 2758m. That's a bit high.
  • Total distance, 117km
  • Total ascent, 2881m. That's a fair bit of climbing.
  • See the route here!
The day dawned hot. Clear sky, blazing yellow-white thing hanging in the blue. Hot wasn't something I'd experienced this year, as the UK had donated its summer to the USA. Sun cream was carefully applied - factor 15 to arms and legs, factor 30 to the neck upwards. Special attention to the back of the neck, and the ears. Burnt ears aren't much fun.

Bernina was a grind, only enlivened by an oh-so-typical Swiss train. Phill and Christina were held up by it, they claimed. For some crazy reason, the train went through the pass slightly lower than we did. Unfair.

Coming off Bernina was a blast, on the oh-so-typical Swiss tarmac. David and Tony were enjoying it so much they decided to continue down it, instead of turning left towards Livigno. There was a wry smile that passed our lips as we sat down for a mid-morning espresso on the outskirts of the town. They'd have to climb all the way back up - another 800m of climbing or so... 

Rolling out of town it was just getting hotter. Flies were relaxing in the shade. Lizards were wallowing in mud pools. Englishmen were out in the midday sun. Only one thing for it... grupetto.

The grupetto ("little group", I guess) is the pack of riders who trail the main bunch up the big mountain climbs. Although we only had eight on the road, three of us hung back slightly and took it easier up the next ascent. It was almost tolerable. We chatted. We exchanged snack foods. We tried to look Italian and stylish, a tricky exercise to pull off with legs as hairy as ours.

At last, the top. Still sunny, but at 2300m it wasn't hot any more. The wind was getting up and we were cooling rapidly. Lovely view though.

In addition to the view, there was possibly the worlds best cafe/hotel/restaurant - at that moment in time, for us. It did thick hot chocolate.

Even better than that, when we started pointing out the plates of mini-profiteroles, the barman gave us a couple of platefuls. Free. He was also fairly relaxed about charging us for coffees - clearly impressed by our withered, sweaty bodies and minor feats of mountain climbing.

David and Tony still hadn't caught us, but they were on their way. The guides started preparing lunch and as we dived into another picnic we spotted David and Tony on the road... as they plummeted over the top of the pass and started down the other side. Oops. We screamed, shouted, whistled, waved. David noticed and turned back to join us for food, Tony didn't. I think he was enjoying all the extra climbing.

Clearly this was the case - as we descended off the mountain (through some disturbing rain showers) we spotted Tony... coming back up. I was starting to realise why he was so quick. At the bottom of the descent we stripped off all the extra layers we'd put on at the top and considered the final climb of the day - Stelvio. The "easy" side, apparently.

35C. 20km of distance ahead. We were at 1300m, so only 1400m more elevation to gain to the top. How hard could it be?

I started slowly, and got slower. As I got higher, I got colder. I think there was a stretch of about 2km where the temperature was about right. Above that, the wind hit, the rain hit. I demonstrated supreme riding skills by managing to get both of my arms through the correct holes in my gilet without stopping. Obviously I had to stop to zip it up. I'm not Danny MacAskill.

Finally, the top. Cold, raining, cloudy. Hence no pictures of the iconic wiggly road. However:

You'd think they'd clean the stickers off.

Tomorrow - touching greatness.

Tuesday 3 July 2012

Italy Part 3: Switzerland

Every trip to the Italian Alps and Dolomites needs to include a jaunt to at least one other country... just because you can. Switzerland is especially good for this because you'll discover that your money doesn't work any more, although given everything is three times the price of Italy that's probably a good thing.

We started our first real riding day as all good rides should - with a ferry ride across a millpond-still lake.

That's the ferry right there. The wobbly thing it's floating on is the lake.

After half an hour or so, which included replacing David's tyre, we arrived on the right hand side of Lake Como. The first 60km or so were flatish, so we let Massimo sit at the front and tow us all along. Well, what else are guides for?

We chugged along in the gradually increasing heat until we reached Chiavenna, which just happened to have the perfect combination of picturesque town square, ice-cold water fountain and shaded cafe. Espresso, Coke and bananas were taken on in preparation for our climb of the day - the Maloja Pass. This started as we left the town and only went one way - up. As it was the first climb with the full group (we now had the foursome from the Bath Cycling Club - Graham, John, Rob and Pete) I felt I'd actually try on this one. I set myself a wattage target with the aim of keeping it constant the whole way up. Soon the Bath CC crew were drifting behind me...

Clearly, it didn't last. I managed about 55 minutes - halfway up - before the sensible side of me reminded the excited puppy side of me that this was the first climb of a long week. I backed off slightly and the inevitable happened, with Bath CC coming past me after half an hour. Darn it.

It got harder at the top - we were now over the border and clearly the Swiss engineers enjoyed a steep switchback or two - so I paced myself to the summit at Maloja. Everyone was relaxing in the sunshine so I lay down on the grass, enjoying the rest right up until the point my leg started to cramp up. Oops. Stretch.

I wasn't the only one with cramp - Phill had suffered in the heat and called for the rescue van - and once we were all back together it was a short downhill spin to lunch, the usual picnic of local meats, cheeses and breads.

Thankfully it was more or less downhill to the hotel too - just past St. Moritz, in the hotel dominated village of Celerina. We hid the bikes in the bike hole, settled in to our rooms and did the normal post-ride activities: posting how awesome we were on Facebook, scraping off the oil marks on our legs and emptying our pockets of energy bar wrappers.

There were two things we had to do that night. Eating was the obvious one, to be followed by watching some football. We were English, our guides Italian, and fate had conspired to schedule England-Italy that night. It was a blessing we'd be watching in neutral Switzerland.

Dinner was pleasant enough although no-one really worked out what the chicken sausage wrapped in leaves was meant to be. It also managed to be almost completely without carbohydrates... a clever trick to play on hungry cyclists. The water was more expensive than the beer, and the cheapest bottle of wine was £50... which we declined.

Watching the football was less pleasant, at least for the English. When it went to extra time most of us made our excuses and left the bar we were in, with only Phill remaining to suffer the Italian celebrations when England lost on penalties.

As revenge, we took the little ring of off Massimo's bike. It was a shame he never used it though.

(I think this should give you the route. And this was yesterday's.)

Monday 2 July 2012

Italy Part 2: The Pilgrimage

Cycling has a spiritual angle. Professional road cycling, with roots in Spain, Italy and France, has a religious one. There are many places that have significance - legendary climbs, memorials to fallen riders, stretches of cobbles and finishing straights. On our first ride of the trip we visited two of these places - the church of Madonna del Ghisallo, and the Muro di Sormano.

We'd arrived on the tour a day early for three reasons. We wanted a more relaxed start to the holiday, to get an extra ride in, and the flights were slightly cheaper. We'd had the relaxed start the day before and on the Saturday morning, as the other guests were sitting cramped in cheap aircraft seats, we kitted up and rolled out of the hotel.

If you ride South out of Bellagio and bear right slightly, you start the Ghisallo climb. This has been mainly used in the Tour of Lombardy, the last "monument" of the road cycling season - also known as the "race of the falling leaves". It's also been used frequently in the Giro d'Italia. The climb is a bit cheeky at the start - 8, 9, 10% - before a short downhill section and then another kick at the end. The steep beginning gave David and Tony a chance to show their climbing skills and they soon dropped me. Thankfully, I'd dropped Phill, so I didn't feel too bad about it.

The Madonna del Ghisallo was an apparition who appeared in medieval times, and the church is dedicated to her. It's a shrine to cycling and cyclists - there is an eternal flame that burns for the fallen, memorabilia from the history of cycling and a daily mass for cyclists too.

The Coppi statue:

There's also a museum of cycling, that was built to house part of the collection of items donated to the church. It's cheaper to get in if you have cycling kit on!

An Eddy Merckx bike
A few pink jerseys...
We paid further respects with coffee and Coke in the cafe, before heading off to our second place of note - the Muro di Sormano. This video gives you an idea of it...

Now, I can't say I wheelied up it... but given there were sections at 25% my front wheel did pop up on occasion.

It was brilliant. More a challenge than a proper climb, it should be on every cyclists to do list. The road was retarmaced after falling into disrepair, and was painted with quotes, time splits and elevations.

At the top we recovered with more coffee and ice cream. We were assured that it was all downhill from here, but you know what guides are like...

Surprisingly, in this case, correct. The descent down to Lake Como was one of the best I've ever experienced. Tight and twisty, through villages and woods, all with the lake in the distance. There were a few pedal strokes to accelerate out of corners but nothing that counted as exercise. The occasional oncoming car added some spice too - it seemed everyone wanted to use both sides of the road that day.

At the bottom we spun along the lakeside before returning to the hotel to meet up with our other four riders. Dinner, beer, wine and ice cream were taken on board to prepare us for the first real day of the tour.

Sunday 1 July 2012

Italy Part 1: Bellagio

Every riding holiday, and every riding holiday blog, has to start somewhere. It's a bit like a Grand Tour where they have a prologue before the real action starts. As such, feel free to fast-forward to the end of this post to check that Cancellara did indeed win.

My holiday started at 03:00 on the 22nd June when I leapt from my bed like an over eager salmon, quickly dressed, cleaned my teeth and packed the car with bike, kit bag and hand luggage.

At 03:11 I was on the road and eating up the miles to Gatwick airport, cruise control set to a gentle 75mph. The sun started to rise ahead of me and by 04:38 I was parked by the terminal and unloading. A quick stroll to check-in, a 10 minute queue and I was waving the bike goodbye as it disappeared onto the over-sized luggage conveyor.

At this point you might be thinking "it's all going too well..." Don't worry, there is a shock coming.


Sitting down?

There were no decent cognac deals in duty-free. I was devastated. 30% off? I'm not paying £95 for something I've paid £65 for before. I'd have to go thirsty on the flight.

I consoled myself with coffee and breakfast before firing off a couple of text messages to my travelling companions, Phill (from LEJOG) and David (from the Pyrenees and Magnificat). They were a little behind me in the airport passenger sausage machine so I wandered the shops and cursed the gods of brandy pricing.

We met up, we boarded the plane, we flew, we landed. We collected luggage and bikes. We had a coffee. Here is is.

I guess we could have stretched to one each.

Our guide Massimo (for this was an escorted trip) was picking up another rider (Tony) from another airport - hence the coffee - but soon he was outside and we were on our way to Bellagio, on the banks of Lake Como. Twisty roads, scenery to die for and cyclists everywhere. It all boded well for a great holiday.

After lunch (pizza, obviously) we strolled into town. Bellagio is a beautiful place, almost a Hollywood version of an Italian lakeside village. It reminded me of a Cornish fishing port, if Cornwall was
  • hot and sunny
  • brightly coloured
  • populated by slim, stylish Italians sipping espresso and arguing over pasta shapes.
We wandered, I bought a bike jersey, we ate ice cream and drifted back to the hotel, trying to move with the heat rather than against it. Bike building brought our first emergency, when Phill snapped his seat-collar in half. Somehow his frantic call to Massimo led to a replacement being obtained - it seems that an S-Works Roubaix collar can be found if you know the right people.

We ate dinner on the lake at an over-priced tourist trap but quite frankly, with a view like this we were happy to pay.

And I don't mean the view of Tony.

Next instalment - Best First Day Ride Ever.